The Ferber method was developed by Dr. Richard Ferber, an American pediatrician. The technique advances that crying in babies at night can be controlled by not holding them, but checking on them at regular intervals, reassuring them and urging them to sleep then leaving them to ‘cry it out.’. This is done until they go to sleep by themselves eventually. The science behind this method is that infants who are at least over four months old can be taught to sleep through the night by not holding them each time they cry during the night.
The process goes as thus; first, the infant is prepared early for bedtime, for example by feeding it early enough or by reducing activities prior to bedtime. The second step is to leave the infant in bed and leave the room, when bedtime arrives. The parent should then return to the infant’s room at regular intervals to comfort him until it sleeps. The important thing here is to reassure the baby without picking him up. Each subsequent night, the parent should return to comfort the baby at longer intervals than the previous night. For instance, day 1 could be after every three minutes, day two after five minutes, and day 3 after ten minutes and so on. Ferberization does not work effectively on all children (Ferber, 2006). All children have different personalities; there are others for whom this method will have worked by the third day, while for others, the effects will not have been noticed even a week after implementation.
The controversy behind this method is that it involves leaving a child to ‘cry it out’. This means leaving the baby to cry and not holding him for comfort when he cries. The baby realizes that when he cries, no one is going to give him the kind of attention that he needs, which is cuddling and soothing. Therefore, he learns to fall asleep on his own. This method contravenes the basic principle that an infant is helpless and completely dependent on their parents for love and care. The baby does not use crying as a manipulative technique to deprive his or her parents of sleep and rest, therefore it should not be treated in a manner that suggests that affection and care is withdrawn when they cry at night. Critics of this theory also argue that Ferberization carries the risk of causing long-lasting psychological and moral problems in a child.
The method of letting a baby to cry it out was first advanced by Dr. Emmett Holt in 1895. His ‘Cry It Out’ (CIO) method also advocated for letting a child learn how to sleep on his own without any cuddling or soothing from his parents. The Ferber method is used mostly in western countries and its primary idea is to instill independence in a child from an early stage.
The ferberization process should be implemented under the following guidelines; firstly, this technique should not be used on infants under the age of four months. This is because up to the fourth month after month, babies are still need to be fed at night and are too young to have developed a sleep pattern. Secondly, this method should not be used on children who have a conditioned fear of being left alone in their beds in the dark or those who have a conditioned vomiting response to such a situation. Thirdly, the Ferber method is inappropriate as a method to use for treating most of the child sleep-problems. For example, separation anxiety, nightmares, sleep walking, nocturnal headaches and circadian rhythm sleep disorders. Such sleep-problems should be treated in the proper way to avoid causing deeper problems in the child’s physical or mental health.
Fourthly, the Ferber method does not teach the child how to sleep, this method uses withdrawal of physical affection with the expectation that the child will eventually not expect to be touched or soothed in order to sleep. The child adapts this new behavior as a conditioned response to not getting sufficient attention when she cries. The Ferber method should be implemented in a controlled environment, the child should not be made to suffer because of this method. If it fails to work completely, the parent(s) should resort to non-cry methods such as ‘positive routines with faded bedtime’ and ‘extinction with parental presence’ (Gewitz & Boyd, 1977).
There are several loopholes in this technique. Dr. Ferber has himself said in recent interviews that he regrets some of the principles that were advanced by this method and the effects that they have today. This perhaps is because he realizes that the Ferberization theory he founded had several implications. Often, during the implementation of the technique, children might develop ear infections from the congestion caused during crying. It is also a scientific fact that crying has the following impacts on the child; it reduces oxygen levels, increases the heart rate and blood pressure, raises cerebral blood pressure and depletes energy levels. During Ferbering, these are experienced, and this may be re-enacted many years later during a panic situation that may trigger memories of the Ferbering process during childhood. Therefore, Ferbering increases the risk of an individual developing panic attacks later on in life.
This method has been widely criticized and even called ‘barbaric’ for withdrawing sufficient parental attention from innocent infants/children when they are in distress. Firstly, Richard Ferber is not a psychology expert; therefore, his opinions on the best way to train children to sleep may not be the most qualified or the best. Critics also argue that this method elicits feelings of powerlessness, helplessness and lack of love in the child. This is harmful to his psychological development because he learns that he cannot trust his own parents, the world is cruel and lonely and she is not loveable at times. This might eventually be harmful to her self-esteem, her interaction with others and the world around her. (LeVant, 1950).
A study by Harvard researchers led to the conclusion that babies should not be let to cry it out, they need their parents touch and attention. By allowing their children to cry, parents are in the real sense causing irreversible changes in the child’s nervous system, which makes him extremely sensitive to future trauma. This research takes into account the brain-function, emotional learning in infants and cultural differences. They state that ferberization is especially common in the U.S. where the importance of independence is emphasized from an early age. Parents fear that their children will become dependent and clingy if they are allowed too much affection at bedtime.
The researchers argue that the opposite of this is true, physical contact, reassurance and affection from parents makes children more secure in the world and their relationship with others. In the research, American mothers were seen to take a relatively longer time responding to their children’s cries. Women from the Gusii community in Kenya were used as the control group in this research. They slept with their babies and responded immediately when the baby cried. This as a result has affected the long-term behavior of societies. Americans generally do not like to be touched and are very independent peoples (Harvard Gazette, 1998, April 9). This independence in some cases has led to people isolating themselves. Cultures that advocate for providing babies with any physical affection that they require, generally tend to be warmer and tight-knit.
A critical long-term analysis of the different methods of sleep training and their specific consequences in an individual’s life would be crucial in identifying the method that would not lead to undesirable psychological and emotional effects among the society. Further research in this area should focus on the manner in which this method can be adjusted to suit the personality of the child, different cultures and should clearly outline the Feberization process to clear the misunderstandings that child-care experts, scholars, parents and other concerned parties may have. For instance, the revision of this method could answer questions such as how to reduce rigidity and non-display of affection in the method but still implement it successfully.
Mindell, J. A., Kuhn, B., Lewin, D. S., Meltzer, L. J., Sadeh, A., & The American Academy of Sleep Medicine. (2006). Behavioral treatment of bedtime problems and night wakings in infants and young children. Sleep. 29(10): 1263-76
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